By Jeff Labrecque
Updated May 31, 2011 at 10:30 PM EDT
LeBron James
Credit: Sara De Boer/Retna Ltd

He’s been known as King James since he became a Sports Illustrated cover boy at the age of 17, but tonight in Florida, LeBron James will have an opportunity to begin to really earn that moniker. His Miami Heat host the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals (9 p.m. ET on ABC) , and heavy wears the head that wears the crown. Few athletes have endured a more seismic shift in public perception than James, who went from being the favorite son for the small-market Cleveland Cavaliers to the tone-deaf superstar heel of the Heat after he announced in July that he was taking his talent to South Beach during a grotesque self-absorbed made-for-ESPN special. Leaving Cleveland wasn’t a crime, but the way he did it — he didn’t inform his hometeam before making the televised pronouncement — planted a bullseye on his back that hasn’t faded all season.

After some growing pains, where James had to learn to mesh his talents with teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat rolled through the playoffs. James appears on the brink of winning his first title and establishing himself as the league’s undisputed best player. Of equal importance to James and the Heat, the vitriol about his departure from Cleveland has subsided slightly — though there will still be plenty of fans pulling for the Mavericks simply to spite James. This can only boost the NBA’s ratings, as the league finally has its version of the New York Yankees: a star-studded team that will draw fans tuning in for the coronation, and an equal number watching and praying for a humbling, heart-breaking Heat defeat.

The Heat are hardly a shoo-in — the Mavericks are led by their own superstar, Dirk Nowitzki — but fans should be prepared for what comes next, following a Heat championship: LeBron Mania. The 26-year-old has talked openly about wanting to be a Global Icon, and a title will deliver him to heights previously attained only by His Airness himself, Michael Jordan. (Kobe Bryant, for all his brilliance, had some off-the-court blemishes.) If you thought this was over the top, imagine what awaits us after a Heat victory. I think it was Kingpin‘s Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) who once said at a similar high point of his illustrious career, “Finally, Big Ern is above the law! It’s a great feeling!”

Are you prepared to officially crown LeBron James? Even if it means that he’ll star in several Kazamm-style Hollywood movies and host Saturday Night Live again?

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